By Tom Mattingly
Despite the best of preparation and intentions, there are days and nights in various football stadia across the country that seem longer than most, when everything that can go wrong actually does.
The 1986 Auburn game, played Sept. 26 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, came a year after the Tigers, then rated No. 1 in the county, had time to chew on a 38-20 loss in Knoxville.
Tony Robinson had thrown the ball all over the field, and Vol defenders put the clamps on eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Robinson ended up on the cover of the next week’s Sports Illustrated.
In the rematch, Auburn exacted a toll on the Vols, winning 34-8. It was a mismatch from start to finish.
Then there was the season finale against Vanderbilt at Dudley Field on Nov. 27, 1954. That was a tough one for Vol fans to swallow, with Vanderbilt winning 26-0. Vandy had only beaten the Vols once since 1937, so emotions ran high that day.
Vanderbilt fans were yelling, “Block that kick! Block that kick!” as Tennessee lined up for the second-half kickoff. That game’s outcome and a four-game losing streak to finish the 1954 campaign resulted in Athletic Director Bob Neyland firing head coach Harvey Robinson and the entire staff. That brought Vol All-America and 1938 captain Bowden Wyatt home from Fayetteville, Ark., to Knoxville. Neyland called firing Robbie and the staff, “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
On Oct. 11, 1980, Tennessee was in the final stages of defeating Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta. The final score was 23-10, but the outcome was in doubt until the final minutes.
The Alabama game, played a week later, was not far from fans’ attention, to the point that, in the final stages of the game, once victory was ensured, here came the cry from the Vol faithful.
“We want Bama! We want Bama!”
That wasn’t a smart move.
A week later, Alabama did show up. In a game played in a heavy rainstorm, the final score was 27-0, Crimson Tide, in a game that wasn’t that close. Sometimes you get what you want, and it ain’t pretty.
In 1970, Tennessee fans couldn’t wait for Florida to hit Shields-Watkins Field after Doug Dickey had changed his mailing address from Knoxville to Gainesville. (There had been considerable thought in the community that the Vols might overlook Alabama the previous week ahead of the Florida game a week later. That didn’t happen).
There was enough hoopla around the contest to satisfy the most hardened fan, as Tennessee won 38-7. There were songs written about both head coaches. From the Tennessee side, there was a composition entitled “Tricky Dickey,” while Florida fans came up with one called, “Bad Billy Battle, You Mean and Nasty Boy.”
In 1995, when the Vols lost to the Gators 62-37, a hard rain hit Florida Field in the latter stages of the game with the Gators comfortably ahead. The Florida folks enjoyed the deluge as much as Vol fans had enjoyed a similar deluge three years earlier.
A streak-breaking win can cause great exuberance among the opposing fan base. Take, for example, Alabama 6, Tennessee 3, 2005, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Alabama insiders said the ensuing crowd reaction was among the top periods of pure, unrestrained joy at the Capstone in their memory. The legendary stadium overflowed with emotion.
A great many of us old folks remember the Nov. 15, 1969, Ole Miss game and the “mules” comment by linebacker Steve Kiner. That was a pretty long day, especially when you consider the Vols did eventually win the SEC title. The Rebels’ Cloyce Hinton kicked a field goal just before halftime that bounced over the crossbar, extending the lead from 21-0 to 24-0.
That caused Tennessee SID Haywood Harris to utter one of the shortest quotes ever in Sports Illustrated: “Dang!” Not “gosh-dang,” as he could have said had he thought about it, but merely “dang.”
Finally, no one is around who might have seen or heard about the 1893 four-game swing, starting in Knoxville against Kentucky A&M (56-0) and carrying on through games in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem (Wake Forest 64, Tennessee 0), Durham (Duke 70, Tennessee 0), and Chapel Hill (North Carolina 60, Tennessee 0). The games started on Oct. 21 and ended on Nov. 7. The losses were by a combined total of 250-0.
Now, that was a series of really long days. So long, in fact, that some players refused to admit they had been a part of the team that season.
Wonder how getting beat 250-0 over the course of four games would play out today?